The Assassin’s Creed series has taken a turn these last few years. Where once players had the freedom to approach the open world at their own pace, it’s since embraced so many RPG systems that you can become so underleveled against enemies that you can’t even kill them by surprise with a stab from your hidden blade. This doesn’t have to be the case though, as Ubisoft had a far better solution in the last mainstream Assassin’s Creed game — Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate.
Syndicate is set during the age of industry, starring twin assassins Jacob and Evie Frye as they liberate London from the villainous Templars lording over every level of society. The story itself is a fine popcorn flick to work your way through, but in a surprising turn, Syndicate isn’t in a hurry to force you down that path. After an initial set of story missions, you’re free to explore London at your own pace with no invisible walls barring you. Instead, Syndicate has gangs set at various character levels throughout the city. With your cheap equipment and minimal upgrades at the start, a direct assault is practically suicide.
Except — you’re an assassin. Skill is as important as the tools of the trade, which is where Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate’s brilliant difficulty curve comes into play. Combat and stealth in Assassin’s Creed have always placed reflexes and strategy above brute force, and with the increased verticality of London, this increases a dozen fold.
Where past games would often place you on an even or fairly close height to your enemies, you can zip overhead past enemy patrols here. Infiltrating a gang hideout? Stab some troublesome snipers and you can start dismantling your foes from below. Liberating child workers? Even a crude pistol can blast some explosives to take out the toughest guards, presuming you don’t just ghost around them. If you ever get caught, you can retreat down the dozens of alleyways or keep stronger opponents off-balance while dodging around and stunning them.
It’s also in these moments that your role as a gang leader pays off. Over time, as your influence expands, you can summon your underlings off the street to accompany you. They can serve as a distraction, muscle, ambushers, or even provide fire support when in carriage chases. A single pair of fists that have your back can be all the difference between victory and defeat on the mean streets of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate’s London.
If you make a mistake, you’ll pay dearly with a sizable chunk of your health bar. That margin for error tightening around you ups the tension brilliantly, all culminating in some of the series’s best boss encounters. Cause enough trouble and your rival in any given district will hunt you down. Now, the gang fights in Syndicate aren’t mechanically unique on a base level, but they do offer something distinctly their own — they’re not on rails, with as minimal scripting as possible.
While some gang leaders will go for a straight-up brawl, others are far more unconventional. They each have a distinct personality, and with all the dynamic systems in play, it’s possible for them to turn coward and run or try to ambush you early on. In one case, I had a yellow-bellied gang leader run off in a carriage until I leapt aboard and tossed her out, with her allies chasing me all the while. As she fell out of the carriage, a veritable cavalcade of her allies ran over her, one after the other, trying to stop in time to catch me. I didn’t have to throw a punch, and the beautifully bleak humor of it all was completely unscripted. Another gang boss attempted to scare me off with a show of force while I was just wandering with my gang to a side mission. With my thugs distracting his mob, I chased him right out of the district.
What’s brilliant is the solutions I came to in each circumstance were due to my Jacob and Evie both being underleveled but plenty resourceful. I wasn’t built for protracted brawls, but I could navigate London faster than a flea and my carriage driving was more brutal than any brass knuckles. If not for that, those two rivals might’ve gotten away to harass me another day. Rather than hiding behind the typical bloat of overwhelmingly rewarding upgrades most Ubisoft sandbox games grant in the endgame, Syndicate let me get to the meat of its open world straight away.
And you know what? It was a thousand times more empowering. I unlocked virtually every major upgrade and perk by the time I got to clearing the Templar leaders out of London, and I felt like a proper don. Carriage needs chasing? A snap of my fingers and allies arrived in a premium carriage stronger than anything waiting to be stolen off the street. Templars trying to assassinate Karl Marx? Why, I can draw attention away with a scuffle while I stab each would-be assassin in the back ever so silently. A Templar boss fight that demands more than just mashing the attack button? Why, good sir, allow me to thrash you thoroughly with reflexes normally akin to Batman.
It’s amazing to experience. While the Assassin’s Creed series is famous for many things, it’s always been accused of either being too easy or too hard. Syndicate gets it just right. You choose how challenging you want things to be. You can take the easy route and follow the story missions, earning enough experience to ensure no side quest is too great, or you can go right into the thick of things, rising from rags to riches with your wits and mates. That’s an incredible achievement, one of many that keeps me coming back to Syndicate all these years later.